By Nicole Pensiero | CNBNewsnet
There's a first time for everything, as they say. And finally, it was time to give an all-inclusive vacation a try. Aside from ocean cruising, I'd never been very interested in all-inclusive travel, imaging long buffet lines, watered-down drinks and sub-par food.
But when pondering a good getaway for my 60th birthday, the idea of a four-night jaunt to Mexico (with five longtime friends) seemed ideal. And an all-inclusive resort, selected online, seemed our best value. We opted for the Mexican Caribbean for a few reasons: half of our group ad never been “south of the border” and were eager to visit Mexico, and everyone agreed it would be a great cost-savings over some of the other island destinations we talked about.
The resort we ended up selecting -- the 4-star, 340-room Royal Sands, is one of six properties owned by Royal Resorts, a pioneer resort company in the Mexican Caribbean and in the vacation ownership industry. Royal Resorts first opened the Royal Cancun in 1978; the Royal Sands – its largest resort – opened in 2000. What we didn’t realize at the time of our booking was just much we could take advantage of the nearby Royal Resorts properties in terms of activities and dining. For example, while our hotel didn’t offer snorkeling, the Royal Cancun – only a quick shuttle ride away – did; and while there, we could enjoy their dining options too, thanks to the handy-dandy wrist-band that showed us to be all-inclusive Royal Resorts guests.
Dining options, both at our resort and at our "sister" properties, were plentiful and the food was terrific. From the pool side bar/restaurants to the almost-always opened buffet restaurant, La Veranda, the options and quality were exceptional. We had two amazing dinners – one, a traditional Mexican meal at Hacienda Sisal on the property, and a second at the nearby Royal Islander’s El Conquistador, which specializes in steaks, seafood and flambéed dishes. And while we were somewhat less enthralled with the popular Captain’s Cove, it earned points for the amazing sunset views and a visit by one of its two resident crocodiles (which have a neighboring bar, Pancho & Willy’s name in their honor).
If you've never been, Cancun is a beautiful vacation destination, with brilliant blue water and powder-white sand beaches. The surf can be a bit rough at times - but that's what a pool with a swim-up bar makes up for! We couldn't have asked for more from our Royal Sands vacation: from the tremendous customer service to the terrific cuisine and relaxing vibe, it was the perfect getaway.
As a first-time (but certainly not last-time all-inclusive traveler), here are a few travel tips to share:
- Bundle your air travel with a hotel stay. By and large, you'll save money by putting it all together, so to speak -- including the airport shuttle.
- Do your homework. Every all-inclusive resort is different. And sometimes, all-inclusive resorts cater to specific groups of travelers. In other words, if you’re planning a honeymoon or anniversary trip, you may want to consider an all-adults property. We felt like we had the best of both worlds at the Royal Sands: it was geared toward families but there is a separate "grown-ups only" pool area, too!
- Get to know your concierge staff. The Royal Sands has a personal concierge assigned to all its guests; our point person provided us with countless tips and ideas to make the most of our stay. We also visited the guest services desk more than once to get the low-down on meals, drinks, tipping (a 7-percent tip was included for wait staff with our package; we supplemented that amount as we went along).
- Take advantage of the perks. The Royal Sands had tons of included activities for both adults and kids, including daily water aerobics and frequent yoga and Zumba classes.
- Make dinner reservations. This is a biggie with all-inclusives across the board. The Royal Sands has plenty of on-site dining options, but the gourmet restaurants – either on the property or nearby – are extremely popular and require an advance booking.
- Indulge in room service – even if it’s just to have coffee and tea delivered to your room before heading down to that luscious breakfast buffet. If it’s included, which it was at our resort, it’s a very nice perk to have available 24-7.
- Occasionally go for the “splurge.” While most meals are covered in full, Royal Resorts offers some specialties for a very reasonable up-charge. For example, having the most incredible Steak Diane flambéed at our table was worth every penny of the – yes, I kid you not - $9 surcharge. Two of our group also splurged on some at the resort’s spa. I was treated by my friends to an amazing hydrating facial (there are an array of one-hour facial and body work treatments offered at the standard $137 rate). Ask for what you want. On our first day, we noticed a beautiful photo display in the resort gift shop showing various families/couples/kids posing on the beach. We asked our concierge and were pleasantly surprised to find out that we could have photos taken of our group for free, beachside, and that any we liked would cost only $14 each, and provided in digital or print form. The informal photo shoot took about 15 minutes – the photographer had us doing everything from a Bay Watch run to jumping in the air – and the resulting pix turned out terrific, providing us with a fantastic memento of a fantastic experience. For more information on the Royal Sands or other Royal Resorts, visit www.royalreservations.com or call 1-888-387-7744. For more information about Cancun, visit: www.http://cancun.travel/en
Nicole Pensiero is a New Jersey-based travel writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
Photos by/courtesy of Nicole Pensiero